Students in Riga spelling out “Latvija”, 1920s, , National Library of Latvia, In Copyright

If you’ve ever been involved up in a demonstration, surrounded by an indiscernible mass of pushing bodies, waving arms and shouting voices, you’ve experienced how intimidating crowds can be. A mass of people can induce agoraphobia and claustrophobia, especially when gathered in a confined space.

This picture of football fans watching Arsenal play Charlton at Highbury Stadium radiates nothing but enthusiasm and excitement at first sight. Yet a closer look at the sheer number of attendants and the modest fence shielding children from the field reveals the potential disaster hidden in this scene.

The dark side of the crowd is also evident from the image below. The photograph was taken in Cairo in 1936 during a wave of anti-British riots. Hundreds of students surged round and eventually attacked the car of Egyptian Premier Nessim Pasha.

Yet large groups of people can harbour great beauty as well. This photograph was taken at the annual inspection of the army training companies in Tuileries Garden, Paris. The concentrated efforts of the soldiers and the symmetry of outfits and gestures transform a group portrait into an attractive and rhythmic composition. 

Training the troops in Paris, 1915, Maurice-Louis Branger, Parisienne de Photographie, In Copyright
Training the troops in Paris, 1915, Maurice-Louis Branger, Parisienne de Photographie, In Copyright

Yet the most beautiful quality of the crowd is not so much what it looks like from the outside, as what it’s driven by on the inside: shared emotions that turn a joint experience into an unforgettable memory.